Rescinding of “Dissent” Award Triggers International Uproar

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Rescinding of “Dissent” Award Triggers International Uproar
By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier

Last week, in this column, I disclosed the news that the American Foreign Service Association had just reversed itself, taking the unprecedented step of withdrawing the “Constructive Dissent” award from John Evans, the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia.

This was a shocking development, as this award is given to high-ranking diplomats for their “intellectual courage, initiative and integrity in the context of constructive dissent [and] for demonstrating the courage to speak out and challenge the system on a subject related to their work.”

Last February, Amb. Evans had forthrightly and appropriately referred to the Armenian Genocide, as a genocide, to the chagrin of the Turkish government and its supporters in the Bush administration. It was highly ironic that the U.S. Ambassador would lose this award for the very reason that it was given to him in the first place - “dissent.” So much for encouraging honesty and integrity at the State Department.

I posted my last week’s column on the groong web site in the evening of June 6, a couple of hours after being informed by AFSA that it had just decided to rescind the award. Little did I know then that within a couple of days, my column would trigger a national and international uproar and would be picked up by scores of newspapers and wire services from around the world, such as the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the UPI, Hurriyet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Turkish Daily News, AzerTag (Azerbaijan), Webindia123 (India), and Armenian newspapers in several countries. Even the spokesman for the State Dept., Sean McCormack, was asked about this controversial issue during his daily press briefing on June 9.

Despite attempts AFSA and State Dept. officials to cover up the real reasons for the withdrawal of the award, it has become clear that the award was rescinded after direct pressure was brought to bear on AFSA from the State Dept. When John Limbert, the president of AFSA, was asked by the Washington Post to explain the reason for his group’s action, he replied: “State Department officials would have to explain their concerns.” The Award Committee is composed of current and former State Department officials. L. Bruce Laingen, who chaired the selection committee, was more forthcoming. He told the Post that “very serious people from the State Department in particular” expressed concerns about this award being given to Amb. Evans. Laingen said that the award committee had not focused on the criterion that dissent had to be expressed within the system, until it was reminded of that by the State Department!

Once again, as a result of the over-reaction of Turkish officials and their Washington cronies, the issue of the Armenian Genocide was publicized worldwide. All of the above newspapers and wire services, even the Turkish and Azeri ones, reported that the award had been withdrawn from Amb. Evans because of his comments on the Armenian Genocide. The Washington Post wrote that Amb. Evans had characterized “as genocide the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire in 1915.” It included in its article lengthy quotations from the statements Amb. Evans had made last February on the Armenian Genocide - the same quotations that I had cited in my last week’s column.

The Washington Post also wrote: “the timing of the association’s decision appeared curious, given it came just before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Washington for a meeting with President Bush to bolster strained U.S.-Turkish relations. John W. Limbert, president of the association, said that no one at the organization can remember an award being withdrawn after it had been announced. ‘It is not something we do easily,’ he said.”

Ironically, if the State Department thought that by withdrawing this award it would avoid the awkward situation of honoring the U.S. ambassador to Armenia for acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, at a time when the Turkish Prime Minister was meeting with Pres. Bush, it actually ended up creating a bigger embarrassment, as the national and international media reported AFSA’s controversial decision, while the Turkish leader was still in Washington.

By withdrawing the “Dissent” award, AFSA and the State Department made fools of themselves in front of the whole world. Their unwarranted action not only undermined the credibility of the award, but also the reputations of both AFSA and the U.S. government which acted in this case with intolerance more typical of oppressive third world regimes.

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